How to Talk about Shame

How can you discuss shame?   It is hard to talk about shame, particularly with unbelievers.  It’s not the kind of thing people talk openly about.  That is the nature of shame:  it is hidden.  However, it is only when shame is brought into the open that it can banished by the light of Jesus’ glory.  So, if you can’t dive into the issue head-on, what are some indirect ways for introducing the topic?


1.  Share your shame. 

All people struggle with shame to some degree, including you.  If you want others to reveal sentiments of shame, you must first reveal yours.  What shame have you struggled with?  (Remember, shame comes from failing expectations, so what are the expectations you feel bad for not living up to?).  By sharing our own bouts with shame, we can relate to peoples at the heart level.  Can you retell your testimony in terms of honor and shame?  This introduces the topic of shame, while presenting a divine solution.

2. Tell a Bible story of a shamed person. 

You may have to explain the historical background, but I suspect they will intuitively grasp the social meaning.  Use the inherent power of stories to invite and explain.  Do they identify with the main character’s shame?  Does the story trigger any emotions of shame?  Potential stories include Mephibosheth (2 Sam 9), Tamar (2 Sam 13), the bleeding women (Mk 5), the prodigal son (Lk 15), or the blind man (John 9).  What biblical stories do you think broach the issue of shame while hinting towards a divine solution? Both of these approaches introduce the subject of felt shame, with the intention of helping the hearer move towards freedom, grace, and value in Christ.  This type of shame before other people is real and redeemed through Jesus. 

However, there is a far more serious type of shame – shame before God.  Discussing people’s social shame is a valid, but discussing spiritual shame is also important in evangelism.  (Social and spiritual shame are certainly intertwined, but separating them can help ensure we speak to all aspects of shame).   We dishonor God, so are orphaned from His family.  How can we discuss with unbelievers our fundamental, objective shame before our Creator?  Here are two ideas.

3. Explain the family inheritance.   Spiritual shame started at the fall, and has been passed down through generations.  People in HonorShame cultures know status is inherited (or ‘ascribed’) from their biological family.  But people must remember their spiritual family(Adam and Eve), whose shameful status we also inherit.  Such a family shame is inescapable.  To discuss spiritual shame, we can retell Genesis 1-3 (how Adam and Eve fell from glory to shame).  The remedy to inherited shame is being adopted into a new spiritual family, in which we adopt the glory of our new Father and exalted Brother (Heb 2:10-11).

4. Discuss personal defilement.  As well as inheriting spiritual shame, every person is defiled by their sin.  When discussing a person’s spiritual shame, the language of defilement and uncleanness can be helpful – as people intuitively link defilement with shame.  So for Muslims, you could ask, “If you saw a sign at the meat counter “99.9% halal”, would you still buy that meat?”  (I’ve never heard a “Yes!”).  Likewise, people can be generally good and pure, but some defiling stain tends to define our fundamental acceptability before the Creator.  By speaking about sin as defilement, it opens the door to discuss a person’s spiritual shame. More could surely be said (and debated!) for each point, but hopefully you see some potential doors for helping people find freedom and grace for shame through Jesus.

Have you ever discussed these issues with unbelievers?  What was the result?

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3 Comments on “How to Talk about Shame

  1. I’ll comment again after I actually read this post (don’t have time right now)…but gotta say…awesome picture!!! 🙂 Made my day!

  2. It wasn’t an honor/shame society in Northern Indiana, but I remember being so surprised at the reaction the first time I apologized at work. It was a high-pressure marketing department and I had been snarky and rude to another department manager that many people found difficult to work with. The person I apologized to was very open, and my manager who knew the difficulty opened up about his own struggles like never before.

  3. This blog will be helpful as we reach out in love to the Muslim friends nearby who are here studying in the USA. Thanks, Jayson.

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